LOS ANGELES — CALIFORNIA may double the number of women in the United States Senate this fall.
A quirk of history has left both of the state's Senate seats open. The retirement of Sen. Alan Cranston and the ascension to the governor's office of Sen. Pete Wilson have resulted in a double election.
Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer hold commanding leads over their Republican, male counterparts. Former San Francisco Mayor Feinstein and 10-year Congresswoman Boxer hold, respectively, 16-point and 19-point advantages over current US Sen. John Seymour and Los Angeles television commentator Bruce Herschensohn.
The contest between Senator Seymour and Ms. Feinstein will determine who will serve the remaining two years of Governor Wilson's Senate term, begun in 1988. Congresswoman Boxer and Mr. Herschensohn are vying to succeed Senator Cranston for a full, six-year term.
"The races are Boxer's and Feinstein's to lose," says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Two recent polls play down the impact of the "year of the woman" theory in creating the situation. Both women are receiving only some 11 percent more support from women than from men.
As both the Democratic and Republican Parties move to the right amid this state's well-publicized list of fiscal woes, a clearer reason for the Boxer and Feinstein leads is that they are invading the vast middle ground where most California elections are won.
With the election seven weeks away, most analysts believe Boxer and Feinstein will hold their leads, with Feinstein the more vulnerable of the two.
"Dianne Feinstein's profile is haunted by a host of negatives left over from her 1990 run for governor against Pete Wilson," notes Del Ali, vice president of Political Media/Research of Washington, D.C. Polling data collected from Sept. 4 to Sept. 7 by Mr. Ali's firm indicated that 37 percent of respondents gave Feinstein an "unfavorable" rating compared with 41 percent "favorable." By contrast, a Los Angeles Times poll showed only 21 percent saying they had a negative opinion of Seymour, the former stat e senator appointed by Wilson to fill his place until the current election.
"Feinstein and Seymour agree on key issues," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. Both support abortion rights and the death penalty. Noting that Seymour is still an unknown to most voters (nearly half don't know who he is), Professor Jeffe adds: "If Dianne stumbles, makes mistakes, and the tide changes, Seymour has a chance."
"Each side is trying to paint the other as far out of the mainstream as possible," says Mervin Field, director of the California Poll. So far that has meant personal attacks instead of the forwarding of positive agendas.
In appearances north and south, Feinstein is highlighting Seymour's lack of voter recognition and accomplishments in the Senate since his 1990 appointment. She has accused him of waffling on abortion and is underscoring his vote to confirm US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas - an act that has turned away feminists and abortion-rights supporters. She is underlining Seymour's association with Wilson, whose approval rating is at an all-time low of 20 percent, and with George Bush, whose ratings here ar e even lower.
For his part, Seymour is taking on Feinstein's tax-and-spend mayoral record and a controversial battle with the state Fair Political Practices Commission over the finance records of her gubernatorial campaign. And he is trying to tie her name to Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown as the man who led the stalling tactics in California's recent budget impasse.
"Mayor Feinstein likes to talk about change," Seymour recently told a candidate forum. "But I'm here to tell you that I've been in the trenches to make change happen, and I've been doing it long before change suddenly became the trendy or politically correct thing to do."
In the race between Herschensohn and Boxer, Herschensohn is one of the most conservative politicians to appear on the California ballot in years. A former speech writer for Richard Nixon, he has called for voluntary prayer in schools, an increased defense budget, an end to legalized abortion, and increased oil drilling along the California coast. Those views have cost him the support of hosts of Republicans as well as the Democrats and independents he needs to win in November.
Boxer is carrying some negative political baggage of her own. She was a vocal opponent of the Gulf war; she was among the House members stung by the House banking scandal, bouncing 143 checks worth $41,000; and she supported the unpopular bill that boosted congressional pay to $129,000 a year. She is also a 10-year veteran of Congress at a time when anti-incumbency fervor is peaking nationwide.
"Being against the Gulf war is not baggage anymore," says Jeffe. "And in order for bounced checks to hurt her, the message has to get out. But Herschensohn doesn't have enough money to do that."
Several analysts here are already weighing the impact of two new Democratic women senators and wondering how their Senate efforts might dovetail with the needs of their beleaguered state. If added to the possible wins of a dozen women on ballots in US House races, some say the victories would push California to the forefront of a breakthrough for women officeholders nationwide.